The last-place Soo Eagles visit Cambria County War Memorial Arena this weekend.
That doesn’t change the fact that the three-game set will be the Johnstown Tomahawks’ most important stretch of the NAHL season to date.
Johnstown has dropped seven straight games (0-5-2) and slipped from a solid second place to fourth in the North Division. The top four teams advance to the Robertson Cup playoffs.
Fifth-place Springfield enters the weekend only two points behind Johnstown. Even though Soo sits in the sixth and final spot, the Eagles only are four back of the Tomahawks and could scramble the standings with a strong showing on the road.
“There is no panic button but we’ve got to really bear down and get hungry,” Tomahawks coach Jason Spence said. “We’ve got to play how we can play.”
The Tomahawks (26-24-5, 57 points) and Eagles (23-25-7, 53 points) meet at 7:30 tonight. The same teams play at 7 p.m. on Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday during fan appreciation weekend at the War Memorial.
“I’m expecting it to be a great weekend,” Spence said. “It’s the last home weekend of the regular season. It’s fan appreciation. We have the best fans in hockey and they deserve it. We’ll do whatever we can for them because they do whatever they can for our team.”
Port Huron already has clinched a playoff berth and leads the North with 74 points. Second-place Michigan (63) and third-place Janesville (58) still are within Johnstown’s reach in the division.
The Tomahawks have been in all but one game during the seven-game skid. In fact, Johnstown hasn’t allowed more than two goals in regulation the past four games, but still came away winless.
Last weekend at Springfield, the Jr. Blues won 2-1 and 3-2 in an overtime shootout. Two weeks ago, Janesville posted 2-1 and 2-0 victories. Other close losses were to Wenatchee (3-2 in overtime) and Michigan (3-1). The lone blowout was to the Warriors (9-4).
“Right now we’re trying to be a little bit too perfect,” Spence said. “The rolls aren’t coming real easy for us. We haven’t given up more than two goals for a while. We’re playing good defensively. We just need to start scoring goals.”
Spence has been around the game long enough as a former player and as a coach to knows fortunates can change quickly.
“As soon as you get that first bounce, your confidence is going to go up, and that second bounce is going to come a lot easier,” Spence said. “You have to have confidence. You have to believe in what you’re doing. When it happens, you hope the flood gates open up.”
Spence said he’ll turn to veteran goaltender Alex Okicki tonight. Okicki is 19-15-1-2 with a 2.53 goals against average and .919 save percentage.
“This is the biggest game of our year,” Spence said. “You have to go with the guy with the experience.
“Alex is a veteran. He’s going to be fine. He’s gone through this in the past. He’s gotten over it in the past. We’re going to get over it together.”
In other key divisional games tonight and Saturday: Janesville visits Michigan; and Springfield travels to Topeka.
The Tomahawks close the regular season with a pair of games at Janesville next week.
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.